Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Just the Facts, Nothing Else.

"You have the right to remain silent!"

We've seen this situation in so many movies, books, and tv programs. And we think we know how it goes.


Using information provided by forensic crime scene detective Guy Olivieri, my partner 'in crime' at the NJ SCBWI annual conference in June, we're going to dispel the erroneous information that Hollywood has led you to believe is how the real world works and that shows up in (too) many novels.

As soon as an officer asks you a question, you do NOT get a Miranda warning. Take A.I.M. for the truth- Arrest > Interrogation > Miranda. Officers are allowed to question you at the scene, in the car, where ever because you are not under arrest. Clues and valuable information are gathered just by 'chatting' and police are not required to Mirandize you until you are officially under arrest and are being interrogated.

Another thing Hollywood gets wrong, says Guy, is that forensic evidence is not always available. Crime savvy criminals know to wear gloves a lot of the time. Add to that it takes sometimes months for evidence to be analyzed and run through various databases for 'hits' (where it matches up with other crimes or people). And if there is no DNA or fingerprints on file, there can be no comparison. (My mom wouldn't be in any database, but I would because I was fingerprinted when I applied for a teaching job. Guess I'll have to get her to do the foul deed....).

The way matches are made, he explained, is prints are taken and uploaded into the State Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) or the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) which is connected to the FBI. This system has access to 70 million criminal fingerprints, and 34 million civil fingerprints (if you're a teacher, government worker, etc. and had your prints taken for security purposes, you're in. With me.). It takes around 20 minutes to compare a card with 10 fingerprints to others in the system. For a single print, it takes a bit longer, around 45 minutes, if the fingerprint quality is good. Sounds good, right? Not all police departments have access to the system. Between lack of access to technology and understaffing for the time-consuming and tedious evidence collection and analysis, most crimes aren't solved more quickly, and some not at all.

One thing that drives Guy crazy is when a show has detectives getting fingerprints off clothing or other rough surfaces. Not happening, unless your novel is a sci fi and they've developed technology in the future that can do this.

Like fingerprints, DNA is collected. There are 15 million samples-and there are 7.5 billion people. Odds are against a match unless your perp is already in the system. However, all prison inmates must surrender to DNA and fingerprint sampling, and now some states require both DNA and fingerprint samples be taken especially from suspects in violent crimes.

RIP chalk outline guy. Unless you're writing a 1920s murder mystery, he's long dead and gone.

Blood spatter: There are various types. Transfer is from the source (victim) which is moved by a handprint, foot print, etc. Passive is when it drips or runs by itself. High velocity looks like it was sprayed with a mister, medium velocity has larger drops and splatter, and arterial spurt looks like someone spurted ketchup against the wall. (Unscientific, I know, but it helps give you an idea).

If you want to determine the direction of where a blood spot originated, the formula is: Angle = SIN-1 (Width/Length). Yeah, don't ask me, it's been decades since I did that kind of math. If the spot is elongated (looks like it has a tail, kind of like a comet), the tail points in the direction of travel.

Finally, here are some terms relating to the stages of death (more than just rigor. Who knew death was so complicated?).

Pallor mortis - a paleness that presents in light-skinned or white people within 15-25 minutes after death because there is no circulation.

Algor mortis - lowering of body temperature after death.

Rigor mortis - After 3 hours, the body begins to stiffen, reaching the maximum stiffness after 12 hours. This disappears about 3 days later.

Livor mortis - when all the blood settles in the lowest part of the body, creating a purplish-red discoloration. Even if the body is moved, the discoloration remains.

Decomposition, the breaking down of the body, occurs next, followed by skeletonization.

Next week, the final part: mistakes for writers to avoid.


*Above information, except for my notations, were obtained from Det. Olivieri's extensive knowledge and his handout, Scene of the Crime: How Experts Handle A Crime Scene. He lists The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry and Det. Sgt. Joseph L. Giacalone, ret., http://joegiacalone.net/cold-case-squad/ as his sources.

Monday, June 20, 2016

This is not Hollywood...

Most times when you watch a TV show or movie that includes a crime scene or investigations, Hollywood takes a little...license. What you see generally isn't what happens in reality. But adding drama doesn't have to come at the expense of being factual. And, sometimes writing factually makes for more suspense (it's never that easy or quick to solve a crime); 'Truth is stranger than fiction' being the rule.

I'm referencing the handouts and class presentation used by my co-presenter at the NJ SCBWI for our workshop Scene of the Crime: How Experts Handle a Crime Scene and How Authors can make it Real. Besides his extensive experience as a forensic crime scene detective, he used the following resources:

1- The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
2- http://coldcasesquad.blogspot.com, by Joseph L. Giacalone, ret. NYPD Det.

I'll give you a brief rundown of the basics of forensic crime scene procedures and common mistakes that writers make.

Processing the Scene
1. Secure and protect the scene. This means except for the crime scene investigator and emergency medical people, no one should go walking through the crime scene, not even other police officers.
2. Initiate preliminary survey. Check the scene, look for visual clues.
3. Evaluate physical evidence possibilities. Does it look like more than two people (victim and perpetrator) were involved. If gunshot, was there more than one? Is there a murder weapon?
4. Prioritize collection of evidence. Safety first: are there weapons that need to be secured? Is there evidence that could get contaminated?

Guy poses the following questions that crime scene detectives ask:
a- Did the homicide, assault, etc. occur in this location? What happened here; was there a fight, signs of a struggle? When did it happen and what types of evidence should there be?
b- Has the body been moved by either family members, first responders like EMTs, someone else?
c- Has any object been moved by others?
d-Was a gun/rifle used? What type of weapon (automatic, revolver, etc.) More than one shot in victim, possibly lodged in walls, etc.?
e- Are there shell casings?
f- Is there blood spatter?
g- Is there blood in other rooms?
h- Are there visible footprints or fingerprints in the blood?
i- Is all evidence visible in photos taken at scene and properly numbered and logged?

5. Prepare a narrative of the scene. CSIs take notes and start to tell the story, based on evidence, of what they think happened. Because of the length of time it may take to go to trial (months to years), these notes must be precise. Just the facts, ma'am, and no guesses. (Guy notes that in NJ, a detective's notes must be submitted as evidence.)
6. Capture the scene photographically. Include long shot, close-ups, and medium range shots with measurement scales (rulers) and numbers.
7. Prepare the crime scene sketch at the crime scene. This rough sketch is used to document measurements and placement of evidence. A more detailed sketch will be prepared later.
8. Conduct a detailed search. Broaden the area beyond where the body lies.
9. Record and collect physical evidence. Evidence must be secured, uncontaminated and properly documented and packaged from the time it is picked up until locked in evidence storage. This is called "chain of evidence." Anything with blood or other fluids cannot be placed in a plastic bag because that hastens decomposition (hence all the brown bags you may see on documentary investigative shows or the news.) The proper packaging must be used depending on the type of evidence.
10. Conduct a final survey. Make sure all the evidence is collected by walking through.
11. Release the crime scene. No one, not even family, should be granted access to the scene until the detectives are finished with their investigation.

Being aware of the following procedures should illuminate why such shows as Murder, She Wrote (Guy used this example) is just pure fabrication. Realistically, no outsider is allowed to tramp through the crime scene or get near evidence. Stay behind that yellow tape!

Because Guy presented so much information, this will be a 3-part series. Next week, some of the terms and science behind crime scene investigation.

Till then, stay out of trouble!


Monday, June 13, 2016

Creating Truthful Fiction

If you're novel tells me the green sun is shining brightly, I'll believe it- as long as the setting is a dream, an apocalyptic moment, an alternate universe, or an alien planet. Even fiction has to tell the truth if you want people to believe it. (Ever hear the saying 'Truth is stranger than fiction'?)

This is especially true in crime fiction. Oh, there are books out there that s--t--r--e--t--c--h the boundaries of believability and most of the time it's obvious. From my presentation at the NJ SCBWI annual conference, here are the tips I offered:

1. Read crime novels; get a feel for how they set up the crime, discovery, evidence and resolution, the pacing, the twists.

2. Look at crime scene photos in no-fiction accounts of crimes like Helter Skelter, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me, the Story of Ted Bundy. Watch true crime specials on Discovery, Investigation Discovery, Smithsonian and American History channels.

3. Plan the crime from the start- from the first thought of the evil deed to the resolution (arrest/jail/death). You may not use all the info, but it will help you stay on track. Plus, you as the author, can't be as surprised as the rest of us when the perpetrator is revealed.

4. Use specific and numerous details. The smallest clues can lead to discovery of solving the case. While some clues like fingerprints do help solve crimes (if the fingerprints are in the fingerprint database), it's not always the case. Son of Sam was caught because of a parking ticket. No clue is too minute.

5. Be imaginative! Create clues, i.e. the single pink-blonde hair on Bec's computer in Blonde OPS. (Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out what the deal is.)

6. Learn what doesn't work. A well-known author had a 16-year-old posing as an insurance agent. Hmmmm, that's a stretch, but let's go with it- makeup, wig, etc. The owner of a 15 carat priceless emerald asks said 'insurance agent' if she wants to hold the gem. This is waaaay too convenient for the story and what the 'agent' plans to do. No one in their mind would ask a stranger if they wanted to hold something of theirs that was so valuable it had no price. Then, said 'agent' drops the emerald in order to kick it away to steal it. That's called cheating to make the story go the way you want it. A crime scene cannot be written around what you want other characters to do unless the character has a routine, habit or gets into a situation created to elicit a specific response. Disabling a car so they would have to call a cab is perfectly legit; the 'he suddenly decided to leave the Rolls Royce and take a cab that evening' is a total cheat.

7. Get the facts RIGHT! If you drop a 15 carat emerald on a bare or hard floor, it will shatter; they are soft stones. Someone didn't check their facts or learn about emeralds. (I've cracked an emerald, this is how I know.)  Even in sci fi and fantasy, there are certain aspects that are always true, like the laws of physics. Cheating to help make it easy to write your story is not allowed.

8. You'll know you're doing the right research if you get a notification from the FBI, Homeland Security, etc. and they shut down your browser. Here's me showing the class my notification:

9. Don't be obvious! The butler can do it, but wouldn't you rather have a fresh suspect? Or at least a single, overlooked-by-others clue that points out the perp? And if we can guess too soon who the perp is, it means you've rushed the scene, cheated on red herrings and misdirection, or didn't give your readers credit for seeing through a thin plot. Unless you are writing a non-fic account that is straightforward and we already know who did it, keep it a mystery. Even then, it's a process filled with errors and presumptions until all the pieces are assemble. Ask any detective- until the end, you're not really sure. Here is my co-presenter, forensic crime scene detective Guy Olivieri demonstrating, based on a true case, how the clues didn't always seem to fit:

10. Learn basic police procedures and those specific to your city/state/country because laws vary. New Jersey is a state, Pennsylvania is a commonwealth; their justice systems/procedures might be very different.

11.  Your crime scene doesn't have to have happened in reality, but it has to be possible. Think of Mission: Impossible weapons or the car stealing scene by computer in Blonde OPS. Experts can help you put in enough details to make it believable, but not make you an accomplice.

Finally, some resources to think about:

*The library. You can get a lot off the internet, but don't be lazy. There are numerous books that might have the details you need--like a book of poisons and famous murder cases, the details of CSI work, etc. Your reference librarian is a goldmine. And they love a challenge. Plus, looking at a book in the library won't get you flagged like online searches can...

*Google Earth. Walk down the street, swim in the lake, look across the way via Google Earth. It allows you to get minute details that make your novel believable because someone will say, "I've been there, it looks just like you described!" Unless, of course, your editor will fly you to where ever your crime scene is to personally note the details.

*Your local, state, and federal government agencies. Chances are any governmental agency will have a public liaison or a PR officer to handle information requests. The best: get friendly to an actual cop or agent.

*Writer's Digest. This professional organization has a library of How To books: writing crime, mysteries, all about weapons, etc. And they are a reliable, verifiable source.

*University and college professors. Chances are you're not too far from a college. Those professors, associate professors love to share their knowledge (that's why they're teachers....). Glean what ever info you need from them (and it's always nice to thank them in your dedication/acknowledgment and also with a thank you email/letter.).

*Professional organizations. Sometimes they'll answer, sometimes not, but you should always try. Some you might need to be a member, but it may be easier than doing all the digging yourself:
 -Mystery Writers of America
 -American Bar Association
 -International Assoc of Crime Writers
 -Sisters in Crime
Don't overlook other orgs that fit the situation; if your character was a member of a club or group, like the American Medical Association, the Lions Club, or whatever, they can help you out.

Finally, no one not associated with a case should have access to the crime scene- Guy says this is so TV/Hollywood, so no "Murder She Wrote" because that just ain't happening.

See you soon- but hopefully not in a lineup-


Monday, June 6, 2016

The NJ Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference Wrap Up

Yes, I skipped last week. It was Memorial Day Weekend and I had a conference to prepare for, relatives to celebrate the coming of a new baby with, and work around the house that demanded to get done. A writer can't always live at the keyboard.

But the conference was great! If you EVER aspire to be a children's book author/illustrator, you NEED to attend this conference at least once. (After that, you'll be hooked. I just have to get you in the door once...)

So many wonderful things happened- making new connections, friends, giving/attending workshops, facilitating events for attendees/editors/agents, socializing, signing books, cheering on the successes of members, and simply getting back to the joy of our community.

It wasn't all sunshine and butterflies- a few glitches, a few heartbreaks, but we powered through them. Here's a gander at the fab people you meet at an SCBWI event (people came from so many different states and other countries; we MUST be doing something right!):

Unfortunately, my cat Mink was VERY disappointed he couldn't go; he even packed his mousie in my suitcase. Sorry Mink, this conference is for writers, illustrators, editors, and agents only!

This is our fabulous regional advisor, Cathy Thole-Daniels (doesn't she look familiar? Yes, she's also the illustrator for my Indie project, Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines). She and the rest of the committee of which I am very proud to be a part of, pulled off a wonderful conference yet again. We're getting a reputation for being one of the best conferences in the US. (That's why YOU need to be here if you want to get serious about your writing/illustrating).

This is my gal pal, Marlo Berliner, who debuted her The Ghost Chronicles novel. She'll also be in a number of Barnes and Noble Teen Author events. Look her up!

The irrepressible Tracey Baptiste! Her fiction books are The Jumbies and Angel's Grace. She's always good for a big happy smile! Events with Tracey are just plain FUN.

Fellow committee member, tech wizard, and good person is Laurie Wallmark who not only sold another picture book on Grace Hopper (computer pioneer), but is the recipient of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. Couldn't go to a nicer, more deserving person! Yay Laurie!

So much I owe to Kidlit Authors Club founder, great person, and talented writer Nancy Viau. Among her books are Storm Song, City Beat Street, and forthcoming Just One Thing! She truly 'gives back' to the children's writing community through Kidlit Authors Club and helping newbies like I used to be get started on the grind that is marketing.

My Writing Wenches and gal pal Yvonne Ventresca, awaiting the debut of her second novel, Black Flowers, White Lies (and did you know she put me in the dedication of her first book, Pandemic?).

(Don't you hate selfies?) But I loooove Darlene Beck-Jacobsen! We were table mates at the NJ SCBWI Book Signing. She's waiting to hear about siblings to keep her novel Wheels of Change company on the bookshelf... *fingers crossed!

This is the fabulous, awesome, amazing, gracious, sweet, I-want-to-keep-her Suzi Ismail, who was the closing keynote speaker. Her presentation on Writing Across Cultures OPENED my eyes. I just can't love her anymore than I do!

Finally, a big hug, kiss, and shout of thanks to Mike Ciccotello! He entered the above piece in a juried art contest. I told him that I saw the piece and it just 'spoke' to me. So he gave it to me! It will hang in my office and be the perfect inspiration piece when I write MG fiction (since I'm writing from a boy's perspective) and it will remind me of the joy of my own sons' childhood. Check out Mike's stunning works (especially his coffee cup doodles!) here and fall in love.

Although it's a frantic weekend and exhausting, waiting a year to do it all again seems so very long. I hope to see these fine people again sooner. In the meantime, if you want to polish your skills, get an agent, get published, get involved in the world of publishing for children, this is the place to start. So mark it on your calendar to start checking in February about date announcements. The conference sells out fast, so don't wait! In the meantime, attend author/illustrator events; we love to talk about writing/illustrating and are happy to help the newcomer.

Now I seriously need another cup of chai because I couldn't get any at the conference and I have a ton of work to do.

Enjoy the day, the possibilities, and all that's good-